Earlier this month, Mr. Lif joined Thievery Corporation, and Lee Fields & The Expressions for JBL Live at Pier 97 in NYC. Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble was scheduled to interview Lif onsite, but the interview had to be rescheduled due to time constraints. (We all know what’s it’s like getting stuck in rush-hour traffic going in and out of NYC.) With more time on his hands, check out what the Boston-born rapper, often hailed as a political hip-hop MC, had to say about touring with Thievery Corporation and how the second coming of his career is taking shape.
BR: What’s the best part of performing in New York City?
Lif: You get a certain feeling when you perform in New York or L.A. It’s big time. It’s one of those places where you go there, and you just want to make sure that you hit home runs because it’s a big market. The city is amazing and full of history. New York is always big time, so you want to go there and do your best.
BR: Which is your favourite city to perform in?
Lif: New York is one of them. I mentioned L.A. Earlier on in my career, when I was releasing more of my solo efforts at the time, L.A. was probably the number one market for me, New York was number two, and Boston was number three. I think Chicago was number four in terms of selling records, so those cities have always been amazing for me to perform in.
BR: What about internationally?
Lif: With Thievery Corporation, we love playing Greece. Athens is always epic. Athens is definitely one of my favourite places to perform. Athens is just a remarkable experience, and Athens is one of Thievery’s hubs. I also love performing in Amsterdam. One of my favourite experiences just happened in Romania. We were in Cluj, Romania at this festival called the Electric Castle Festival, and it was absolutely remarkable. I’ve definitely had a couple of memorable shows in Croatia on the Dalmation Coast. In Tokyo, I’ve had shows that I really remember back in the Def Jux days. Caravella – I was only there once in Caravella, Japan for a memorable show. There were, luckily for me, a handful of experiences that I had in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia that were also highly memorable. I love it. I feel very blessed, and I’m just very glad that music has allowed me several opportunities to see the world. I really couldn’t ask for more.
BR: How has this tour with Thievery been compared to others?
Lif: The thing with Thievery is, much like myself, they’ve been in the business for a very long time. And I think they are not, as a collective, out just trying to do every show. They’re trying to do the right shows as established veterans. So, it’s nice with them. We don’t do extremely long tours, so I think the result of that is that every musician in the band has a deep appreciation for when we all meet up and make this thing happen as a group. This summer was great. We were actually a little busier this summer than last summer because we did Europe, and then we played multiple areas of North America. And yeah, I just think that every time it just feels like it gets better. No one in the live performance troupe takes it for granted. We know that our bosses are well off, and they don’t really have to do shows. Especially Rob Garza, who is just very active with doing a lot of DJ sets now. He’s just a really great DJ. He’s one of the founding members of Thievery Corporation. It’s Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, and if Garza isn’t spinning the after parties to one of our shows, he has his own gig booked in a town nearby that he has to leave for in the morning, or sometimes he stays the night. It’s great. The spirit is definitely being kept alive. Like I said, each band member, we truly appreciate each other.
BR: What can you tell us about the ‘Permaculture Action Tour’ with yourself, The Polish Ambassador and Ayla Nereo?
Lif: For me, this is going to be a really new experience. This was really spearheaded by Polish. When I last went out to his home a full calendar year ago, that was our first face-to-face meeting. We had already been working together. I think we had already actually cut our two singles, “Lost & Found” and “Let the Rhythm Just.” And then we had finally had the opportunity to be face-to-face, and at that time I had a chance to sit down with him and Ayla, and they were talking about purchasing a piece of land by the house that they were renting at the time. And since then, they have gotten rid of the house and are living solely off of the land. Some of the things that we face in terms of finishing our first studio album together as a trio is like…Dave and Ayla, they’re very hot on the festival scene, so they’re always out every weekend, but then when they do come home, it’s like, “Okay, how do we get electricity into the studio, so we can finish this song and shoot it back over to Lif?” You know what I mean? Because they are just straight up living off the land. I don’t even know exactly what type of structure they’ve created to make shelter for themselves. So again, this is a vision that’s spearheaded mainly by Polish.
But the way that I feel about it is, I feel like it’s a natural extension of things where I’ve been devout over the last seventeen years of my career where I’ve just kind of been searching for this otherness. This kind of life aside from the grind that we as a people are just all too familiar with. We’re just all so used to the status quo of “Get up, go to work, pay your taxes, pay bills, acquire things, live beyond your means, be in debt you will regret one day” type thing. You know, and I’ve been on the tour circuit since 1998, and I still enjoy it so thoroughly. It’s very rewarding to me. But this type of thing, now what’s happening is we do five shows a week, and then we have Sunday and Monday off. On those Sundays, whatever city we’re in, we’re going to have some permaculture specialists with us, and we’re going to go to some area of the city that we’re in and set up shop and start to just work on gardens and planting trees and cultivating the land and leaving behind an actual positive impact. In addition to rocking the party and making the people there happy and hopefully giving them something to remember at the venue, we’ll be actually making an effort to beautify the community with some fresh new plants. It’s a remarkable thing. I’m really glad to be a part of it, and I think that, for me, a lot of the learning is going to take place once I’m out there getting my hands dirty and cultivating the soil.
BR: Haha. Pun intended?
Lif: Yeah, actually. Yeah, okay. Haha.
BR: How did you come to be involved with the Q-Bert track “OG Bboy” produced by El-P?
Lif: Right, Q-Bert and I. I was out in the Bay on a couple different occasions, and my most recent occasion in 2011, I was living out there. I was actually living with this Balkan Brass band that I’ve actually cut a whole album with. That’s kind of another story. So yeah, for years people would tell me, “You know that Q-Bert cuts one of your records in as part of his routine?” And I was always like, “Oh, wow.” That’s actually a song that I made back in ’99 called “Be Out,” which is just this raw battle track. And so, I finally had a chance to meet Q-Bert. I can’t even remember what year it was. Maybe it was 2010. But I think I was on tour with Edan and Clark Kenneth. Regardless, so when I was living in the Bay, Q and I, we used to just get up and hang out. I’d just go by his crib and kick it, and we’d bounce ideas around, and he’d play me tracks off of the new album, get my opinions and so on and so forth. And we just decided, it’d be great to just do some tracks together. So “OG Bboy” went through a couple different incarnations before it became that. I think Q-Bert originally produced the beat himself, and I had written a full song to it, and in the process of making an album, you get down to the eleventh hour, and you’re just like, “You know what? I want this to be better” or “I want this to be different.” And I think he sent the a capella to El-P along with the track, and El, of course, worked his magic, and so Q sent the track back to me, and I was like, “Look, my old lyrics do not go with this anymore. I’m writing something new.” So, I took a pen to paper and came up with a verse and the rest is evolving history, I guess you could say.
BR: Very cool. What inspired you to offer up Emergency Rations as a “Name Your Price” download twelve years after its release?
Lif: I just think right now, as I’m ramping up to rejoin the industry with this record with Polish and Ayla, it’s kind of caused me to take some time to just really look back and appreciate. I’ll hesitate or refrain from trying to speak broadly about artists, but I can say, for me, I’m always looking forward. I’m all about the next instrumental, or trying to record the next song, trying to write the next song, and stuff like that. It’s just been fruitful for me to kind of take a look back, and just think, “Oh wow. This is remarkable.” I mean, right now, it feels like my second career. I know it’s like the second half of a thin career, but to me, the way that the music sounds now is very different from Emergency Rations. That was just a different era.
Long story short, in addition to the things I’ve already said, a lot of people still come up to me and they talk to me about Emergency Rations probably even more than they talk to me about I Phantom. And I just felt like it was a good time. I’m kind of taking a trip down memory lane. People keep on bringing this record up to me. Let me make sure that it’s available for people in my little online shop. And it’s just been a great way to connect to the fans again. It’s brought people back to the music. And I’m having interactions with people that the record has touched, and I think it’s getting us all excited to move forward and enter this next chapter.
BR: As someone who’s been in the scene as long as you have, how do you feel about the state of hip-hop today?
Lif: Honestly, you can take the gripes of any indie or independent rapper from any era and just kind of copy and paste some of the things that I could say. Back in the day, you had EPMD talking about “Crossover” and hating on stuff.
BR: Oh, that’s my jam.
Lif: Yeah, you know what I’m saying? But you know, hating on stuff that’s on commercial radio. My thing is, I’m not going to pretend that I spend a ton of time listening to commercial radio. Some of the stuff is good, especially on production. The producers, I think, have been out of this world. Lyrically, I think, the general tone of some of that stuff is kind of lower common denominator and not really making an effort to say things that are the most fruitful things that you can mention in the course of the song. But, I honestly just feel like there’s a place for it all. I’m really not worried. In my little tunnel vision scope, I couldn’t be more excited. I think that the way that the industry has changed has given life to some really interesting opportunities. If you take the initiative to just put yourself out there and make sure that you’re still following your heart, and you’re connecting with the right people to help you along the way, I personally couldn’t be happier.
I’m working with Polish and Ayla. We have a very natural thing going on. I’m working with Thievery Corporation. That’s been ultimately very natural. So to me, the state of hip-hop is great. I’m looking forward to what I can offer it now because I have so many new projects that people haven’t heard. Believe me. Obviously, I have the record with Polish and Ayla coming out this fall, Q-Bert and I have an EP together called Return of Colossus. I have a nine-song album with this Balkan Brass band that I was telling you about called Brass Menažeri. That’s the name of the band that I was working with. And then I have two other EPs. I think once this stuff starts coming out, it’s probably going to be viewed as the most prolific era of my career, and I just can’t wait.
BR: Nice. You’ve collaborated with many great artists and MCs over the years. Is there one that you’re most proud of?
Lif: In the world of collaborations, there are times that you link up with other artists, and you make a song. And the process is fulfilling, instrumental. But, it’s just a moment or a small series of moments where you do a song, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to you guys touring together or anything like that. I’ve been blessed to have a few times where I connect with someone, collaborate, and then it leads to an era of my career. One of those moments was the night that I met El-P back in 1998 at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston when he was performing with Company Flow. I remember Company Flow. Meeting him – total game-changer for me. We went on to make several songs together. He started the label called Definitive Jux to which I was signed to from 2000 to 2006. So that’s been one of my favorite collaborations, needless to say.
Linking up with Thievery Corporation – they called me in 2009 to set a date for us to begin working on a song. We hit the studio February 1, 2010, and the song that we made is now known as “Culture of Fear” – they made it the title track of their album, and it was released in 2011. And that has led to me touring with them for the last three years, and that is my family. We all get along extremely well. It’s a team thing. It’s a family thing. There are tons of us, and I can honestly say I love everyone in the group. And then, yeah, I would say linking up with Polish. He called me last summer to write a couple tracks for his record, and then it kind of led to, “Hey, let’s make an EP together.” And then it’s like, “Wait, we’ve got a long of songs. This is an album now. Let’s plan this tour.” I’m hoping that things with Dave and Ayla evolve into just us consistently working together. That’s what it’s been for the past year, and I think we have a really good rhythm going. So, we’ll see where this tour goes, and we’ll see where it all leads. Those are definitely three of my highlights.
BR: How do your Boston roots influence your style?
Lif: I just have love for underdog cities. Being from Boston, you kind of grow up in the shadows of New York. You’ve got everyone in Boston talking about, “Hey, if you want to make something happen from a business standpoint, you’ve got to go to New York.” And then you’ve got this other faction of people being like, “Nah, man, we should be able to do things here.” And I just think that, for me, it starts with my parents. My experience here obviously starts with growing up under the guidance of my folks, and for me, Boston has been kind of a think tank. It’s been a place where I developed. I’ve never been one to feel the need to run around a ton and be a part of everything that’s going on. I’ve never been into going to clubs and all that.
From an educational standpoint, Boston is very rich. I’d say the collective consciousness of this city is intriguing ot me that I love because there’s just kind of an air of intelligence. When you’ve got Harvard, MIT, all these great colleges and universities littered throughout New England to the point where I could never list them all. Yeah, I think that there’s something to be said about the collective consciousness of a region. I’ve bene other places where education isn’t as prominent. Every city’s got a tone and tempo to it – a mindstate. And I think that I would say I’m very largely a product of what Boston offers – what’s in the air and what’s in the water in Boston. It’s a bit of a think tank, and I think as a result, I’m a pretty cerebral MC. So sometimes, I need to make an effort to be a little bit less verbose in some of my verses.
BR: Is there anything else that you want to add or promote?
Lif: I would just say that I hope people will join the journey with me by going to facebook.com/mrlif. That’s where I’m going to be giving sneak previews of all the new tracks and everything. I’m also going to be launching my own website, so please be on the lookout for that. And the album with Polish and Ayla has yet to be titled, but please be on the lookout for that because I just really put my heart and soul into that record, and I feel that there’s a certain energy about it that I really hope that the record takes off and reaches a lot of people. I feel like it has the capacity to do so. So, I would encourage everybody to be on the lookout for that. But, please go to facebook.com/mrlif, and that’s how you can just be directly connected to me, and I will be definitely sharing my thoughts on everything.